flowing motion

Ask better questions about leadership! Lose the tired ideas about who is a good leader

Posted on: October 31, 2009

Are leaders made by their followers?

The first time I encountered this idea was 25 years ago. It assaulted my classical training as a psychologist! It was very difficult to understand that no one is a leader.  All my training said otherwise!

But we are leaders only by consent of our followers and in specific situations for a very short time.  Martin Luther King was a leader for a few years only.

It is time to ask the right questions about leadership

Over time, I came to understand that we had been asking the wrong question; and the wrong question was muddling my head.  The question “are leaders are born or made” belongs in the trash can.  I’ve put it there.  You can too.

The right question is a sociological and anthropological. What role does “leadership” play in organizing society? What concepts do we use? Why do we use those concepts and not others?

Why, in other words, are we hung up on the idea that some people are leaders and some people are not?

Leadership in organizations

As a work psychologist, I spend most of my time working in work organizations. We have been consistently mis-advising banks, schools, hospitals, factories, armies, shops, and every workplace that exists out there.

Leadership resides in the followers

Leadership does not reside in senior positions. Leadership does not reside in individuals. Leadership resides in the followers.

There are times when all the right ingredients are present.  Someone is in the right place at the right time and it all comes together. As organizational consultants, our job is to help everyone in the organization to find this sweetspot.

We chose a leader as a shorthand to tell the world about ourselves

Leadership begins when people start talking to each other in what we call a bounded space. That is the workplace or a project. The people talking together look for a leader, not to tell them what to do, but to represent who and what they want as a kind of shorthand to themselves and to the world.

A leader needs to be replaced regularly because after a while they aren’t a quick summary of what we want to tell the world

The day a leader stops being representative of our collective wishes, either because s/he has stopped listening or because s/he no longer is what they want, then the relationship falls apart and force needs to be used to maintain the position of “leadership”.

Why do we allow leaders to stay too long and use force against us?

I suppose another sociological/anthropological question is when and why we allow leaders to run away with power and to use force against us.

It has long been agreed in the democratic English speaking world that the essence of good government is replacing leaders in an orderly way.  I wish we could see the same as the standard in business organizations.

The use of force against employees is a sign that the agreement is broken

The use of force against employees is a sign that something has gone wrong. Alarm bells should go off.  And HR should be on the scene in a flash trying to understand why the leader believes so little in his or her people that s/he feels the need to bully them.  Young managers often don’t trust their subordinates. A skill that is rarely talked about is the skill of believing in one’s people and seeing their strengths.

The job of HRM and work & organizational psychologists

  • Our job is to broker these agreements.
  • Our job is to coach the group during the inevitable shift in the agreement. How long should they carry on with the arrangement? When should they renegotiate?
  • Our job is to step in immediately force is used and declare a “state of emergency”!
  • Our job is to design organizational systems where leaders are replaced regularly. How long is a good time in the organization we help? How can we design the process of renegotiation and replacement of the leader?

Leaders are only a shorthand to tell the world who we are and what we want.  We need to change them regularly and we need to manage the process to produce the leaders we deserve.

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